“The President’s Perspective”
By Alderman Ashanti Hamilton
Common Council President City of Milwaukee
Recently, the Community Collaborative Committee finalized their report and presented their recommendations to members of the Common Council. Following the lively discussion around police reform and community-oriented policing at Steering and Rules, I thought a lot about my time in Sacramento for the Kings’ Team Up for Change event. With the CCC’s community education sessions scheduled for next month and the topic of policing at the top of mind for many alders, I wanted to again share my reflections from that powerful event.
As many of you know, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Sacramento and participate in a summit hosted by the Bucks and Kings about racial inequality in our communities. This was a powerful moment with prominent people from Mayor Tubbs of Stockton, CA to the rapper Big Boi using their platforms to speak the truth about some of the issues that our community. What really struck me was how incredible it was to see people with such influence using it to educate other prominent people about an extremely uncomfortable reality. Racism still exists and is embedded in our structures and systems.
In order to move forward as a community, we must all understand the realities of our past and present. A major part of this reality is systemic racism that exists in our institutions and continues to keep communities of color in a second-class citizen status. This summit was mostly called in a reaction to examples of systemic racism in our criminal justice institutions such as the killing of Stephon Clark and the police mistreatment of Sterling Brown. These high-profile cases are recent iterations of a story that is unfortunately familiar to us in Milwaukee. We remember the lives of Dontre Hamilton, Derrick Williams, Justin Fields, and too many other young black individuals who were killed before they even had the chance to experience the fullness of life.
And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of people who fall victim to systemic discrimination that are still alive with us. Hundreds of claims about police misconduct and abuse are submitted to the City every year. Some are substantiated, some are not, and others aren’t even looked into. At the core of these deaths and mistreatments is a common theme: discrimination and racism are pervasive in our criminal justice systems even in the post-Civil rights era. To many of us this is not shocking, but this is a reality that not everyone in Milwaukee lives in. We have to be willing to proclaim this reality so that we can operate on the same assumptions as we look for solutions.
The challenge when you look at this systemic racism is how to solve it. It is extremely difficult to correct historical wrongs while at the same time putting the past in the past and moving forward with a new way of doing things in an equitable manner. New programs and practices that try to combat some of the negative outcomes associated with systemic inequality can move the needle slightly, but it takes bold and radical ideas to change these structural problems at the level of urgency required. In Milwaukee, we have people at the table who desperately want to see these outcomes happen, but we need a revolutionary spirit and newfound boldness to actually see their intentions materialize. And we have to see this change now. We cannot wait.
I walked away from my time in Sacramento pondering a fundamental truth that I have known for some time. We cannot continue to ask disenfranchised communities to protest their way to justice. It is unfair, inhumane and downright wrong to violate a person’s human and physical rights and then wait for them to demand fixing before you take care of it. This is especially true when the government violates someone’s right to life. In doing so, we have essentially betrayed the mandate that we have been given to govern. People put us into office to improve their lives. When a government takes the lives they have been entrusted to improve, we turn our back on the values of our democracy. This cannot continue to be a part of the American normal.
Our country was founded because the British government was taking property, taxing people without representation and making decisions on behalf of the powerless that were not in the best interest of the powerless. In the 1770s, this was considered war worthy. People responded to their subjugation as second class citizens by coming to arms and sacrificing their lives to get justice. If that was war worthy, what is happening to our community should evoke an equal since of urgency. We are not talking about unlawful taxes here, we are talking about life and death scenarios for our people. If that was worth bold action then, our plight is worth bold action now and our ancestors have set a powerful example.
The fights that our predecessors undertook in the Civil Rights movement allowed many of us to enter prominent spaces with platforms and audiences unimaginable to a black woman in 1934. Now that we are here, we must use that platform to speak the truth about the inequities that continue to exist. Having some black and brown people reach a point of success is not an end, it is a means to justice. We have to do something with this opportunity, and this was the power in our Sacramento summit.
I was able to be in a room where prominent people were able to speak this reality to an audience that was clearly uncomfortable having the conversation. We were able to remind ourselves and others that, in the criminal justice/policing space, we have a situation in which two things are true at the same time:
1) Communities of color have been disenfranchised and abused since the inception of our country, leading to lasting and damaging trauma. Many black and brown residents of Milwaukee live lives characterized by daily traumatic experiences and justified apprehensions towards law enforcement and other authoritative bodies.
2) Police officers experience trauma by nature of their jobs and have to spend a lot of time in neighborhoods that they only know as “dangerous” or “high crime”. This creates apprehensions towards members of those communities and leads to unacceptable outcomes of violence.
These two realities currently run parallel in their existences and that cannot continue to be the case. In Milwaukee, the Community Collaborative Committee has been a powerful new model to have these worlds collide and coalesce for the betterment of both MPD and the people of Milwaukee. We have to understand each other, be honest with each other and listen to each other if we are ever going to make the bold reforms that will undo the racism infused in our systems. My belief is that this is going to be a pivotal moment for our City that gets us on a path of progress, but we cannot get this work done if we don’t exist in an environment where people live in a false reality where racism doesn’t exist. And we cannot expect the people who bear the brunt of this racism to continue to bring it to light. I and others who have been given a platform and an audience must use it to bring this truth to the forefront of our societal discourse. Only then, can we all come together and do what is best for Milwaukee.